It may be something to do with the way in which the pandemic has rewired our brains, but there have been a lot of asterisks in the Premier League so far this season. Wolves went into this game with an asterisk attached to their name; they travelled to Southampton having lost four of their first five Premier League matches and were only separated from the bottom three by goal difference, while Southampton had not won a league game.
Neither team had played especially well and neither has played especially badly. For both, as we were reminded frequently by the Sky Sports commentary team throughout afternoon, this was a chance to ‘kick-start their seasons’. Wolves were the first to come out and try to create anything of substance, when Raul Jimenez played Nélson Semedo in on the right-hand channel within 45 seconds, but Semedo’s shot was far too close to Alex McCarthy, who beat the ball away comfortably. Had this come ten minutes later, Semedo probably would have scored, but unfortunately we were still waiting for the next shot on target from either team half an hour later.
It was all very tidy and the occasional defensive brain-melt introduced a bracing element of jeopardy to proceedings, but neither team had the guile to work out that final ball. It’s no use whatsoever playing six lovely passes in a row if the seventh runs two yards behind the player it’s trying to find, or sails clean over their head and into the crowd. Southampton pressed without imposing themselves. Wolves moved the ball around nicely, but all too often it ended up moving from an attacking position to being rolled back to one of the centre-halves.
By the latter stages of the fans were starting to get annoyed; exhortations to ‘shooooot’ started coming from the crowd when players had the ball at ever more improbable distances and angles. Nathan Redmond was played through and scored, only to have it chalked off for a very clear offside. The biggest cheer of the half came with nine minutes to play when Oriol Romeu absolutely shanked a shot at least 20 yards high and wide.
On the hour the deadlock was broken, and it came for Wolves, appropriately after Southampton’s best spell of the match had come to nothing. Jimenez has been back in the Wolves team since the start of this season following his sickening head injury against Arsenal last season, but he hadn’t yet found a way through an opposing defence.
But this time, it was different. Jose Sa’s clearance found him alone in the Southampton half. He wrestled the ball from Jan Bednarek, completely wrong-footed Mohammed Salisu, turned back inside Bednarek and rolled the ball wide of McCarthy to score. It was certainly an emotional moment for the travelling supporters, who all know how close he came to death with that horrendous injury last year. He’ll be wearing a head protector for the rest of his career.
But the goal didn’t seem to provoke much fire in Southampton bellies. There was little sense of urgency until the game reached its final ten minutes, and even then, with the crowd increasingly urging their players to do something, anything with the ball in an attacking position, they still couldn’t find that final ball. As stoppage-time ran out and Southampton fruitlessly threw players forward in the hope that they’d pull something out from somewhere, Jimenez almost doubled their embarrassment, breaking on the left and trying to find a position to work the ball through for Adama Traore, and then having a shot blocked by McCarthy when it became clear that the pass was impossible.
This was Southampton’s third match without a goal, and the most worrying aspect of this afternoon will be how infrequently they looked like scoring one. The passing and movement would look okay in phases, only for a mis-placed pass to hand the ball frustratingly back to the opposition. Even in the closing stages of the game, there was a leaden-footedness about their attacking which hinted at a lack of imagination in trying to get the ball through Wolves’ physically imposing three-man central defence.
It’s too early to say that Wolves have turned a substantial corner just yet, but if symbolism does count for anything, then the sight of Jimenez celebrating a winning goal was a good place from which to start. Wolves had looked a little pallid without Jimenez, but his return gives them an attacking focal point again when they’ve been struggling to impose themselves upon opponents. There remains an asterisk above the names of both of these teams, but Wolves will be considerably the happier of the two, having taken the opportunity to get their season going against a Southampton team that will be starting to look over their shoulders.